I have a problem with writing short articles. If you’re not ready for about a ten minute read, this isn’t for you. But this is a strategy that can be a big help in winning your fantasy baseball leagues. If you don’t have the patience to take ten minutes to read an article that will help you win leagues you might spend hundreds of hours preparing/drafting/maintaining and spending (maybe) hundreds of dollars on, well I’m sorry.
For those that aren’t cinematically inclined, an explanation of the Great White Buffalo can be found here.
In short, the explanation of the Great White Buffalo is “the one who got away”. For the sake of clarity – and to tie in with the point of this article – I’m going to treat the Great White Buffalo as a species of animal that doesn’t exist and is only dreamed about, kind of like the unicorn or the dragon. So what is the Great White Buffalo in fantasy baseball terms? The Five Category Pitcher.
The one knock on pitchers that is consistent is that they can only contribute to four categories; starters don’t get saves, closers don’t get wins. Well, that’s not really true, is it? There were 16 different pitchers last year to have at least four wins and 10 saves. In 2011, there were 16 of these pitchers as well. So while the narrative should be “they can’t contribute significantly to all five categories”, I think there is another way to value these pitchers.
This brings me to the other point of this article, the notion of punting saves. For those that might wonder what the fuck I’m talking about, punting a category means you don’t draft at all with that category in mind. Punting saves means you don’t draft closers, punting steals means you’re looking for the thunder-sticks in your lineup and not the lightning-legs. Ray Flowers of Baseball Guys infamy wrote an article almost a year ago that holds for the 2013 season; it’s hard to punt a category and win. You have to really know what you’re doing.
So far in less than 300 words, I’ve managed to talk about Hot Tub Time Machine, extinct animals, pitchers and draft strategy. You might wonder where I’m going with this. This article will show you how to “punt” saves and at the same time, uncover what could be the Great White Buffalo.
So you’re in a 12-team league and are in the last 7-8 rounds of your draft. There are already about 15 closers off the board and it’s really the only position you have left to fill except a few bench spots. At this point, even guys who have a tenuous hold on the closer position like Addison Reed and John Axford are gone. What do you do? Well you should probably punt saves. I am not recommending avoiding relief pitchers, however. Quite the opposite.
It really depends how your leagues are set-up. I am a big fan of nine pitcher slots (can be either SP or RP) but most leagues are set-up to allow at least three relievers to be in the starting line-up. That is the one caveat to the strategy I’m going to present: If you can’t start at least three RPs (ideally four or more) on a daily basis, then this isn’t for you. But I’m going to assume you can start four relievers on a given day.
So we look at last year. Here are some names for you: Ryan Cook (14), Steve Cishek (15), Greg Holland (16), Ernesto Frieri (23), Kenley Jansen (25), Tom Wilhelmsen (29) were among players that didn’t start the season as their team’s closer, yet managed at least double-digit saves. What separates them from other closers that took over are two things:
- They are all big arms. By big arms, I mean they averaged at least 9.0K/9IP.
- They all had at least four wins last year.
Not only all that, but four of them (Wilhelmsen, Cook, Frieri, Jansen) were top-100 fantasy players last year and all six of them were top-200 players. That’s overall, not just including pitchers (for reference, a standard 12-team league has 276 rostered players after a draft). Considering all but Jansen were likely waiver wire additions, that’s not bad.
So why do I have “punting” in quotation marks? Well if you’ve noticed, you don’t have to completely punt saves while you’re punting saves. Get it?
This strategy dictates drafting big-arm middle relievers late. It’s not like they come out of nowhere. I know last year Mr. Trader X himself was constantly repeating that Ryan Cook, Steve Cishek and Ernesto Frieri (if memory serves me correctly, him and I were struggling over Frieri/Downs at one point, admittedly) were the players to own on their respective teams, not Grant Balfour, Heath Bell or Jordan Walden/Scott Downs. Following this line of thought from the beginning of the season would have netted you 14 Wins, 52 saves and 246 Ks in just 203 IP. Take a guess at how many starters netted 14 wins with less than 205 IP last year…. the answer is 16. Sixteen starters in all of baseball had 14 wins with less than 205 IP, and I don’t think I have to tell you none of them registered 246 Ks (no one in baseball go to 240 Ks at all).
So your intention is to punt saves. If you’re in a 12-team league, 90 saves should put you in the top five for the saves category. You can punt saves and still not “punt saves”. I would be targeting big arms in the late rounds. At the very least, you’re going to get great ratios (all six pitchers mentioned had an ERA under 3 and all but Cishek/Holland had a WHIP under 1.15), great Ks per IP and you’re going to get some wins. In fact, if you draft four RPs with big arms who are likely the eighth inning guys, you could get 20 wins out of the four of them. Considering 100 Wins in a 12-team league is elite, getting 20% of these wins from your RPs is a huge boost. Also, with innings restrictions in many leagues, you could get 250 out of your 1400 IP from relievers, which is going to be a huge boost to your K/IP. If you draft the right guys, you can get around 300 Ks out of your four relievers, or somewhere from 20-25% of a very strong strikeout total for an entire roto year (around 1300 Ks). The math is on your side when taking four strong relievers: With the right guys, 18% of your IP (around 250) will lead to at least 20% of your wins (20 of 100) and around 22% of your Ks (300 of 1350).
So even if they don’t close a single game, it can be argued that a group of three big-arm middle-innings guys are as valuable as an ace. And I mean ace. Here’s an example from 2012:
Player A: 206.1 IP, 18 Wins, 277 Ks, 2.44 ERA , 1.10 WHIP, 53 Saves
Player B: 227.2 IP, 14 Wins, 229 Ks, 2.53 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 0 Saves
Player A is an aggregate of Ryan Cook, Ernesto Frieri and Greg Holland. Player B is Clayton Kershaw. On a per inning basis, the aggregate of closers are way more valuable than Clayton Kershaw. Let that sink in for a second……………….
Not only are they more valuable on a per inning basis, they’re more valuable in drafts. On a 23-man roster, knowing what we know now, it was smarter to draft Holland, Cook and Frieri in the 21st, 22nd and 23rd round than it was to draft Clayton Kershaw at where he was going. So they are returning greater value on the draft position and all three pitchers probably could have been had for a couple bucks at the auction table. So $6 from your auction budget was exponentially better value for these relievers than it was to spend $30+ for Kershaw.
The point I make to anyone when I talk fantasy and how I approach drafts is this: I don’t care who a player is, I care about the numbers they give me. Numbers, not names, win fantasy leagues. In a league with innings restrictions, it does not matter in the slightest how you get your numbers. All that matters is getting your numbers.
This is why this strategy is great for those leagues with nine pitcher slots. You won’t have more than four (maybe five once in a blue moon) starters going on a given day, so you leave all your relievers in for the length of the season and accumulate all of their stats. The point in roto leagues is to maximize the production from games played/innings pitched and you’re doing it wrong if you’re trying to get to 1400 IP with just two closers in your lineup.
If you “punted” saves last year and drafted three big-arm eighth inning guys, you probably got some combination of the six guys I’ve mentioned already. You got no less than 45 saves and up to the 70s if you got the right combo. You could have drafted without the intention of getting a single save last year and still finished Top 10 in your league in saves, maybe even seventh or eighth. And given yourself the innings pitched-equivalent of the best pitcher in baseball. You have found the Great White Buffalo. How are more people not doing this already?
Still don’t believe that this is a good strategy? This is my final point.
Innings Per Win
As I said, the point of roto leagues is to maximize each game played and each inning pitched. That’s why Joey Votto is more valuable than Mark Reynolds; he’ll be more productive on a per-game basis and thus the season.
Predicting wins is tough, but in a large sample size it does average out. The top four pitchers in wins for the last three years have combined for: 81 W (2012), 85 Ws (2011), 81 W (2010). So let’s look at 2012 in a nutshell.
Three starting pitchers that had great seasons last year were Matt Cain, Johnny Cueto and Cole Hamels. Peripherals aside, they combined for 52 wins in 651.2 IP combined. This is one win for every 12.5 IP.
In keeping with the same pitchers I’ve talked about, Greg Holland (7), Ernesto Frieri (5), Ryan Cook (6) combined for 18 Wins like I already demonstrated. They also pitched a total of 206.1 innings. Or one win every 11.5 IP.
That’s right, on a per innings basis, those three middle-innings relievers outperformed three of the top 10 starters from last year in wins. In conjunction with their ace-like peripherals and absolute stud-like K-rate, the innings production gives us an extra 10 (ish) wins over the course of a full fantasy season.
Oh yeah, they got a bunch of saves too.
I won a 12-team keeper points league last year (barely) with a starting pitcher roster that was borderline embarrassing. We had limited moves (15 for the whole season) so I couldn’t stream pitchers. My fifth, sixth and seventh starters were Erasmo Ramirez, Justin Masterson and Ross Detwiler. My SP3 and SP4 were CJ Wilson and Anibal Sanchez and they were fringe top-75 pitchers by the end of the year. But I had Ryan Cook, Ernesto Frieri, Joel Hanrahan and Steve Cishek in the line up every day and their IP production probably saved my season. I was then able to really just spot start most of my pitchers.
Please note you can’t just draft four eighth inning guys and leave them there. Maybe they underperform, maybe they get hurt. You might go through five or six before you find the right mix. But I’ll tell you it’s easier to replace Steve Cishek, Ryan Cook and Tom Wilhelmsen than it is to replace Clayton Kershaw. You’ll find Sean Doolittle, Sergio Santos, Vinnie Pestano and Al Alburquerque on a lot of my teams this year.
The production per inning/game played is what determines your league champion, plain and simple. I’ve shown how even with the intention of punting saves, you could end up not punting saves. On a per inning basis, there is no pitcher more productive than the elite eighth inning reliever if he takes over the closer role even for half of a season. Even if you plan on punting saves entirely, you could end up with the Great White Buffalo, the Five-Category Pitcher.